Key themes in national educational technology policies

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The World Bank is concluding an analysis of over 800 policy documents related to the use of information and communication technologies (ICTs) in education from high, middle and low income countries around the world in order to gain insight into key themes of common interest to policymakers. This is work is part of the institution's multi-year efforts under its Systems Approach for Better Education Results ( SABER) initiative to provide policy-relevant guidance for education decisionmakers in a number of policy 'domains' (including areas such as workforce development; school finance; teachers; management information systems; equity and inclusion; and student assessment).
This analysis of ICT/education policies under the SABER-ICT research initiative suggests that there is a set of eight common themes which are, in various ways, typically addressed in such documents. The specific related policy guidance related to each theme often differs from place to place, and over time, as do the emphasis and importance ascribed to this guidance. Nevertheless, some clear messages emerge from an analysis of this collected database of policy documents, suggesting some general conventional wisdom about 'what matters most' from the perspective of policymakers when it comes to technology use in their education systems, and how this changes as ICT use broadens and deepens.
It should be noted that what appears to matter most to policymakers, at least according to the official policy documents that they draft and circulate related to ICT use in education, may not in fact be what *actually* matters most from the perspectives of students, teachers, school leaders, parents and local communities, politicians, local industry, academics, researchers and other various key stakeholders and beneficiaries.

Whether one agrees with apparent policy intent or not, being able to identify such intent can be a catalyst for important discussions and analysis:
Is this really what's most important?
Does this policy rhetoric match our on-the-ground reality?
If not:
What can or should be done?

It is an abiding (and fully understandable) conceit of many governmental policymakers that 'policy drives practice'. This may or may not be true, depending on the nature and substance of a specific policy and local context. When it comes to the development and use of new technologies, the absence of related policy guidance or directives can sometimes enable useful action and activity in certain areas -- especially those which are changing quickly, as can often be the case when new technologies and technology-enabled actions are being introduced and evolving rapidly.

Useful policies and policy guidance can facilitate, enable and encourage certain desirable actions and outcomes; inappropriate or 'bad' policies can do the exact opposite. In some cases, 'getting out of the way' can be a relevant policy choice. Whether in the end this is a result of reasoned and deliberate decisions by a policymaker, or occurs as a result of (for lack of a better term) governmental neglect or inattention, there is no denying that, if and where people are provided the space, tools, incentives and means to innovate, they may just do so. Whether such actions or innovations have positive or negative effects (and often they of course have *both* positive and negative effects), policymakers can play key roles in amplifying, inhibiting, or re-directing such effects to help serve various larger policy goals and objectives.

It is an acknowledged truth in many quarters that, even within a particular educational reform process, or indeed where no reform process is on-going, the pace of technological innovation outruns the pace of institutional and policy innovation. Whether they are reactive or visionary (or currently inattentive), understanding the current stated intentions of policymakers related to technology use in education can be critical in helping to plot the best way forward.
As an aid to a variety of policy discussions which are currently occurring around the world related to planning for the wide scale use of ICTs in education, and in anticipation of many more, here are some common messages that we have extracted from an analysis of national ICT/education policies over time in over 100 countries, organized according to eight key themes:
Theme #1: Vision and planning
• Having a vision
It may seem obvious, if not axiomatic, that articulating and disseminating a vision to help guide efforts to introduce and utilize ICTs to support teaching and learning is important. That said, in 2015, not every country has done so -- and many countries have only articulated visions limited in scope to certain specific topics (giving every student a laptop or tablet, for example, or connecting all schools to the Internet). Reasonable people may perhaps disagree about whether having a 'bad vision' is better than having 'no vision'. While in the short term the results can be disastrous (or at least very expensive), it appears on the main that even identifying the 'wrong' way forward can be better from a long term perspective than not aiming to go anywhere at all.
• Linking ICT/education policies to other policies (including those ‘outside the sector’)
As education policymakers gain more experience, stronger and more explicit linkages between ICT/education policies promulgated by different governmental agencies and ministries, as well as broader policies related to education, technology use and economic development, typically come into place.
• Providing a mechanism for funding
When ICTs are typically introduced within education systems, regular, reliable mechanisms to fund and support technology use over time are not considered. As costs are better understood, and as access to ICTs gains in strategic importance over time, financing related to ICTs beyond support for infrastructure becomes a more regular part of the budgeting process.
• Authorizing authority to lead or oversee implementation
Over time, specialized agencies and organizations, with specialized competencies and responsibilities related to ICT use in education related to ICT use to support teaching and learning typically emerge.
• Engaging the private sector
For a variety of reasons -- including those related to funding, access to industry expertise and stakeholder coordination -- public-private partnerships of various sorts often gradually assume greater prominence and importance.
Theme #2: Infrastructure
• Ensuring adequate power
In many developing countries, issues around reliable and affordable access to power loom increasingly large in the minds of policymakers, and ICT/education policies may become more closely aligned with policies around e.g. rural electrification.
• Providing sufficient equipment and networking infrastructure
When it comes to educational technologies, what’s 'sufficient' is typically a moving target. As ICT use increases, there is typically more demand for access to ICT devices and faster and more reliable connectivity. It is often only over time that the importance of technical support and maintenance becomes truly apparent, and that related funding and human resource measures are put into place.
Theme #3: Teachers
• Providing ICT-related training (technical and pedagogical) for teachers
Support for teachers often is often deemphasized in the early stages of ICT rollouts in education; over time, most education systems slowly invest more in related technical and pedagogical professional development for teachers.
• Identifying a set of related teacher competency standards
Competency standards for teachers are often revised over time to reflect the new demands placed on teachers as a result of the increased use of ICTs; new related formal certification schemes may be introduced as well.
• Supporting teachers in their use of ICT
As follow-on to formal training programs, online and offline support mechanisms for teachers, including the networking of teachers themselves through the use of ICTs, typically increases in importance and emphasis over time.
• Building awareness among and support for school administrators, as a support for ICT use by teachers and learners
Awareness raising and training for school headmasters of lags that for teachers, but over time, the potentially critical role of school administrators in enabling and supporting changed practices in schools as a result of ICT use assumes greater importance.
Theme #4: Skills and competencies
• Identifying ICT literacy / digital competency standards, and offering related training, support, assessment and certification
One common rationale for investment in ICTs in education systems is to promote the development of 'ICT literacy'. In the early stages, this usually means an aptitude with basic software applications; later, it is about developing higher order skills associated with more complex 'digital literacies' (especially related to how ICTs can be used to support student learning).
• Articulating and supporting ICT-enabled lifelong learning opportunities
As ICT use becomes more widespread across an education system, and as more people develop basic related skills and competencies, interest in the utilization of ICTs for learning activities outside of and beyond formal schooling typically increases.
Theme #5: Learning resources
• Supporting the development, dissemination and utilization of digital learning resources
In the early stages of ICT deployments in schools, investment in devices is often prioritized over investments in the content that will be made available through the use of such devices. Over time, this changes, and issues related to the mapping of digital content to specific curricular objectives, intellectual property, and the creation of digital teaching and learning materials by students and teachers themselves, gain greater prominence.
Theme #6: EMIS
• Supporting the collection, processing, analysis, and dissemination of education-related data to relevant stakeholders
Policies around education management information systems are sometimes included as part of broader ICT/education policies. Where they are, initial policies are often rather minimal, and focus on the collection of basic enrolment data by a central body. Over time, as ICT use becomes more prevalent across an education system, more systematic and holistic views of data collection, processing, analysis and dissemination emerge.
[Note: There is a separate SABER 'domain' that considers issues and topics related to education management systems in detail: SABER-EMIS.]
Theme #7: Monitoring and evaluation, assessment, research and innovation
• Monitoring ICT use in education and evaluating its impact on teaching and learning
As countries invest more in ICTs, and as these investments become more strategic, a greater emphasis on monitoring and evaluation typically occurs, evolving from a simple counting of basic inputs (e.g. how many computers are in schools) to more sophisticated attempts to assess impact on learning.
• Utilizing ICTs to support assessment activities
As ICT use become more widespread, interest in ICT-enabled assessments (e.g. taking tests on computers) becomes more common.
• Dedicated support for exploring innovative uses of ICTs in education
Initial efforts to introduce ICTs and ICT-related initiatives in schools often begin as small pilots. Over time, such 'piloting' can wane as policymakers focus more on scale, but after large scale rollouts are completed, more dedicated interest in exploring new 'innovations' re-emerge.
Theme #8: Equity, inclusion and safety
• Prioritizing “pro-equity” provisions and approaches related to the use of ICTs in education
While rhetoric related to closing 'digital divides' may characterize initial ICT/education policies, little attention is typically given to specific 'pro-equity' approaches targeting specific marginalized groups. As the nature of varied impacts on different groups are recognized, and as the easiest to connect groups are connected, policymakers place greater emphasis on equity-related issues.
• Articulating and supporting efforts to promote ethical practices related to ICT use in education, including the safety and security of data and appropriate privacy provisions
Child digital safety issues and the promotion of practices meant to create greater awareness around 'digital ethics' typically only emerge in the later stages of policymaking related to ICT/education efforts. [Side note: With very few exceptions around the world, student privacy issues are for the most part *not* considered or addressed in ICT/education policies.]
These are twenty messages that have emerged out of a recent analysis of ICT/education policies around the world. (A related paper will be published later in 2015.)

Whether or not this rhetorical interest or attention by policymakers to certain key identified common themes translates into actual practices in schools, or by teachers and learners, is of course another matter. And: Even if/where it does, what appears to matter most to policymakers -- at least based on what is identified in related policy documents -- may not in fact be what's most important. It may well be the case that policymakers are missing some things -- some rather important things! -- or that their attention is directed towards areas that, in the end, are not terribly consequential in their impact on student learning, or on the health and performance of an education system overall.
Pointing out potential gaps between rhetoric and reality (or utility) can help inform the development of future policies related to technology use in education that are more relevant and impactful. Providing a means by which policymakers can benchmark their policies against those of their counterparts in other countries can hopefully help as well.

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Note: The image used at the top of this post of a man reading intently ("interesting ... this policy says this, and that policy says that ...") is (c) the Wellcome Library (library reference no. ICV No 25303). It has been slightly adapted (cropped) and is used according to the terms of its Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International licence.


Michael Trucano

Visiting Fellow, Brookings, and Global Lead for Innovation in Education, World Bank

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